Crom-Ya and the Little People

By Gavin Chapell

1. The Hunters

Doggerland, 15,000 BCE

The stagnant marsh extended in all directions with twisted trees rising from its murky waters, oozing and dripping, garlanded with moss and lichen. Cold fog hung in air that reeked of rot. From the distance drifted the croaking of frogs but otherwise all was silent. From time to time the hush was rudely broken by the shouts of hunters reverberating through the mist, and the snarling of hounds that sounded like little more than tame wolves. 

Crom-Ya crouched by the roots of a marsh tree, flint tipped spear clutched in his massive paws, colourless eyes gazing bleakly into the mist. Once he had been a chieftain of the men who now hunted him through the flooded forest, once he had been a mighty man in this savage land. All that power had been snatched from him by schemers and plotters, weakling scum too craven to face him man to man, who depended instead on the dagger in the back, the hemlock in the broth. 

He spat vigorously, and watched his spittle drifting on the black waters. This deep into the marsh he would surely be safe from the hunters and their hounds, but he could not remain here forever. He must find the cave of the Old Woman of the Marshes, and it was still a long way. When he was still the chieftain of his people he had gone there by canoe, gone there many times to speak with the Old Woman, listen to her runes of the future. 

When the Tribe went to war against the Men of the North, or the Painted Folk of the Western Hills, it had been his duty to seek the Old Woman for counsel and divination. Only he had been permitted to visit her, by virtue of his chiefly blood. To the rest of the Tribe, her cave languished under a strict taboo. None would follow him there; in the Old Woman’s cave he would be safe. But if they caught him in the open marshland, they would kill him.

He cocked his head. Now only the croaking of frogs was audible. He had not heard the shouts of the hunters or the barking of their hounds for some little while. Glancing up at the watery gleam of sunlight that filtered through the dark, overhanging clouds, he pondered his chances. If he got going now, he would reach the Old Woman’s cave before nightfall. If he could find the way. Never before had he ventured so deep into the marshes on foot.

Rising, he brushed back his long, wet black hair from his eyes, used his fur cloak to sponge off the moisture that had collected on his brawny limbs, and began to wade through the marsh waters. The damp oozed into his buskined feet, the unseen mud squirmed beneath them. Things were moving in the waters, things he could not discern—nor did he want to. Passing a thicket of willows, he glimpsed a toad watching him from their shadow. His colourless eyes met its imperturbable gaze and it turned and hopped out of sight.

Crom-Ya bared his teeth in a mirthless grin. The Toad was the god of his fathers, the deity whom the Tribe had worshipped in dark rites since first they followed the aurochs herds into this low-lying land. For generations the Toad had known no rival, and had blessed Crom-Ya’s people with luck in hunting and battle in return for the sacrifices they offered—beasts, sometimes even prisoners of war. But during that strange time when Crom-Ya had suffered a strange malaise, the worshippers of another, newer cult had seized control—the followers of the Black Goat of the Woods.

He waded onwards. Soon he reached land that did not quake beneath his buskined feet. Striding from the marsh waters he made his way through the dark woods, spear at the ready, heedless of the wetness that still trickled from his cloak and loincloth. 

Alders rose on either hand, their black boles crisscrossing the murky evening sky. The wind soughed amongst the branches, shaking them until they quivered like the claws of skeletons possessed by sudden, grasping life. Crom-Ya thrust back low lying branches with his left forearm, spear gripped firmly in his right hand. Now he was out of the worst of the marsh, he knew that the Old Woman’s cave must lie nearby. 

Breaking through a gap between trees, he halted. In the distance, mist hung upon a line of hills. These peaks themselves were outliers of a range of clifflike mountains which marked the edge of the territory of the Painted Folk, ancestral enemies of Crom-Ya’s own folk. Separate from them was another hill, surrounded on all sides by marsh, so it was almost an island. Here, he knew, the Old Woman’s cave would be found. His hunters would not dare pursue him there. But how to cross the noisome, sucking bog? 

Searching for a path through the reeds and mire, he caught the clamour of barking hounds drifting down the cold wind.

Whirling, he saw them before they saw him. A group of hunters, clad like him in buskins and loincloths and short fur cloaks, spears and axes in their hands, grey, wolfish hounds frisking about their feet. Some carried bows. They were searching for something—someone!

“Him!” one cried, his voice almost indistinguishable from the snarl of the hound at his feet. “We have found him! Crom-Ya!”

One of the bowmen snatched an arrow from his belt and it whipped through the moist air. Crom-Ya flung himself aside as it plunged into a trunk beside him.

Desperately Crom-Ya used his spear shaft to haul himself up into a kneeling posture. A stand of yellowing marsh grass gave him meagre cover. 

Shadows were lengthening. A glittering ray of sunlight shone through the clouds banked above the western peaks. The hunters stood on the far side of an inlet of the marsh, a bite scalloped out of the woods before the marsh itself opened up. He watched them arguing in the lee of the alders. His eyes narrowed.

At their head, clearly their chief, was a tall, raw boned man with red mane and beard, bearing a stone axe in one hand. Bitterly, Crom-Ya recognised Morgrim. The usurper had come himself to finish off Crom-Ya.

Son of an exiled chief from the North country, Morgrim stood out from the rest of the Tribe by dint of his red hair, a stark contrast to the night black locks of the others. While his companions wore wolfskins, the cloak he wore was a russet fox fell. And yet it was not for that reason alone that the Tribesfolk called him Morgrim the Fox. 

It was he who had taken advantage of Crom-Ya’s malaise to make himself chief…

Morgrim was shouting. Crom-Ya caught snatches of his harangue. 

“…where is he? Cross the marsh and seek him! Worthless dogs…”

Crom-Ya saw him strike the archer. The other hunters fawned on Morgrim like hounds.

Taking advantage of their distraction, Crom-Ya began to crawl on hands and knees across the bog, still gripping his spear in his right hand. The wind had dropped, the smell of the mud hung rank in the air. 

It was clumsy work, but it was almost a success. He kept himself down below the level of the reeds, and in the gathering darkness went like one invisible. Though slime oozed around his knees and forearms, he made steady progress. Then his spear brushed against a stand of reeds and they shook vigorously. A crow flew up, croaking. A chorus of yells and barks rang out from the alders.

Glancing over his brawny shoulder, Crom-Ya saw the hunters pointing fingers and wading out into the bog in pursuit of him. Some sank straight into the mud, and had to be wrested free by their comrades while Morgrim shouted oaths. But others, more skilled at this kind of work, drew rapidly closer. The archer halted on a tussock, fitted an arrow to his bow, and loosed.

Crom-Ya rolled over, and the arrow vanished into a pool of slime. Then he was up and running, splashing, sloshing his way across the green quaking acres. And the hunters were at his heels, hounds milling at their feet as they sent up fountaining splashes of mud.

By now it was close to night, and the sun had already set beyond the western mountains. Crom-Ya ran like a man in a blind panic, and yet there was thought and cunning behind his seeming headlong flight. 

The slopes reared above him, dark against the blue black of the evening sky. On the edge of the marsh, in the shadow of scrub gorse, he turned, watching the dark shapes as they shambled and lurched across the marsh.

One gasping, panting hunter dragged himself up out of the stinking morass, grinning in relief at reaching dry land. He turned to beckon to the nearing hunters—and Crom-Ya struck. His spear, slathered with mire, sank in deep between the man’s shoulder blades. The hunter gave a startled, undignified squawk, then fell forwards to land with a splash to land in a stagnant pool. His body sank, taking with it Crom-Ya’s spear.

Before the echoes of the splash had died away, Crom-Ya was running again, thrusting his way through the gorse. In the distance, behind him, he heard the shouts of the surviving hunters. But gradually, strangely, after a while they died away.

Crom-Ya advanced through the gloom. Ahead of him loomed a rocky cliff. 

2. The Old Woman of the Marshes

As he came out of the gorse and saw the cave that yawned in the rockface, and the flickering ruddy glow of firelight from within, Crom-Ya knew that he had found his goal. He recognised the path through the bushes that led up from the marsh on the far side. 

Over there, times without number when he had still been chief, he had moored his dugout canoe before going up to the cave to speak with the Old Woman. It seemed so long ago. So long had he suffered his malaise, so long had he dreamed that he dwelt in an alien place beyond his understanding, a land of cone shaped beings and huge constructions of stone, that recollections of that former life were like a dream themselves.

He followed the path. Dangling from alders were skulls, hanging by withes or ribbons of twisted grass—beast skulls, deer, and fox, and lynx, and even an aurochs skull propped between two branches. The skulls of sacrifices made in this taboo place to placate the wrathful gods and spirits. It was a weird and eerie scene, and he wondered if he now knew why his so-dogged hunt had ceased their pursuit of him.

They were afraid. And rightly so.

He stepped onto sandy soil. The cave mouth was before him, its archway towering high overhead. Daubed on the walls were images of beasts and birds and hunters. A fire burned, but did little to dispel the gloom that lurked at the back of the cave. 

Crom-Ya nerved himself to speak, to call out.

“Old Woman? Old Woman of the Marshes, it is I. Crom-Ya, rightful chieftain of the Tribe. Where are you, Old Woman…?”

He stopped short, his speech faltering, seeing what sat propped against a rock in the shadows behind the fire. 

Again he looked upon a skull, but a human skull topping a human body. It leered at him from the shadows, pale and glimmering. When two eyes opened in those shadowed orbits, and looked at him, Crom-Ya caught his breath.

A wild burst of immoderate laughter rang from the cave walls, and the skull faced figure rose painfully to its feet. Crom-Ya reached out to take a crooked elbow and the Old Woman grinned her appreciation, her breath foul and her mouth lined with broken and yellowing fangs. She drew back, and gazed searchingly into his eyes.

“It is you,” she wheezed, her voice a death rattle. “It is you! I thought…”

“You thought me some Tribesman breaking taboo?” Crom-Ya asked. “Even in these times, none of them would dare. Only one of my blood would come to visit you.”

She shook her head, and began wiping from her face the pale clay with which she had daubed it. It was with such tricks that the taboo was enforced; no man coming surreptitiously to the cave would stay long on seeing her thus, like a living dead woman. “But I was visited by another, and not so long ago. When last you came here, Crom-Ya, at the time of the spring planting, it was another who looked out of your eyes.”

“I have no memory of that,” Crom-Ya said. “I suffered a malaise for a year and a day, during which time I lay in my shelter like one dead, while Morgrim the Fox snatched my chieftaincy, and the worship of the Toad was overthrown in favour of the outland cult of the Black Goat.”

At her bidding he sat down beside the fire, and she directed him to a skin containing drink. He tasted it, and at once felt reinvigorated. It was the most potent of meads. 

“Morgrim the Fox…” the Old Woman murmured. “Then that interloper has stolen the chieftaincy… Aye, but you have been lied to. You did not lie in your shelter.”

“I awoke there,” Crom-Ya protested. “After dreams of alien folk and strange lands under strange suns, I awoke in my shelter to learn that a year and a day had passed.”

“In that time, you walked and talked and came to visit me,” said the Old Woman. “At least, this hulking carcase of yours came hither. I knew that it was one other than you who looked out of those eyes.”

“Devils possessed me!” Crom-Ya cried out in fear. He would face any man in the field of fight without quaking, but the devils of the outer dark were a terror to him and all his people.

The Old Woman nodded slowly. “A devil, aye. That is one name for such folk. They come from another time, another world. Yith is the name of their race. The Wise know of them but dimly, they are a dark rumour. They steal the bodies of men and dwell in them for a space, while the man is transported elsewhere…”

“Then my dreams were not dreams,” Crom-Ya murmured. “I was bewitched!” He gazed sightlessly into the dark. 

Then he shook himself like a cat that has fallen into a waterhole. “But while I was possessed, I could not defend my birthright. Old Woman, I am no longer chieftain, but rather an outcast. I come to you now for succour!”

The Old Woman eyed him darkly a while. Long years had she been seeress, and she had already been old in Crom-Ya’s father’s day. Her origins were a mystery. “It cannot be borne that one of foreign tribe should make himself chieftain,” she said, “or that the immemorial worship of the Toad should be cast down, and the Black Goat take his place. You it is who alone must fight for your place, now all have fallen under the spell of the Black Goat. And yet,”—her eyes took him in, from buskined feet to the black mane of his hair and his colourless eyes—”you are but one man, however strong, and you come to me weaponless. They, however, are many and they have spears.”

“I had a spear,” Crom-Ya snarled, “but I lost it when I slew one of them. One of the traitors will not boast that he was stronger than I.”

The Old Woman nodded again. “I know of how you could come by a weapon mightier than all the spears of Morgrim’s men,” she said in a low slow voice. “Perhaps with that magic blade you could overcome them, a man alone. It might give you the… edge you need.”

“What is this? Tell me, Old Woman! Where can I find it, this weapon of which you speak?”

She sighed. “At midwinter, a star fell upon the land of the Painted Folk.” Crom-Ya grunted. He knew little of those folk, except that they dwelt in the high hills of the west, descending at times to raid the settlements of his Tribe. He had fought them since coming of age, even spoken with them in the lingua franca shared by all the tribes. Short, swarthy folk, who daubed themselves with the juice of the woad plant and pricked their skins with strange and whirling designs. “A craftsman of the Painted Folk was the only one who dared seek it out. From that strange heavenly rock, he succeeded in forging a new weapon, one that in their tongue he called a sword.

“With dark powers he had dealings, and without them would he never have prospered. And yet he thought to break his bargain, and he was hauled away into the depths of the earth by those with whom he dealt, aye and his sword with him.”

She studied him. “Are you not afeared?” she asked suddenly. “Not afeared to learn who it was that took the sword, that weapon with which you could defeat your foes and make yourself chief of the Tribe?”

“I will do anything I must to regain my place,” Crom-Ya declared. “I swear it upon the bones of my fathers.”

“You may think otherwise,” said the Old Woman, and the flames of the fire flickered upon her face, transforming it into an awful mask. “When you learn who it is with whom you must bargain to gain that sword, your salvation. They are the Oldest of Old, older even than I. They dwelt in the hills long before the Painted Folk came out of the West to thrust them into the darkness where they lair like beasts. Yet they are not beasts, and not men, either. During their dwelling in the abyss they have… changed. They are those whom we call the Little People.”

Crom-Ya gasped in sudden horror.

3. In the Hills of the West

“But why should the Little People give me the sword they stole?” he asked broodingly.

“Oh, there will be a price,” the Old Woman of the Marshes assured him. “You must bargain with them. It has been achieved in the past. There is a man alive in the lands of the Painted Folk who struck a bargain with the Little People—and lived.”

“This craftsman you speak of?”

She shook her head. “If that one lives, none know of it. He was carried off by them, none know whither. But he learnt how to bargain with them from a greater wizard who rules in a glen a little way into the hills…”

Crom-Ya brooded on this in silence. “What hope is there of success?” he asked suddenly.

The Old Woman opened up a skin pouch containing tiny fragments of bone, each one daubed with a complex design. She flung them down on the sand, studying the way they fell, then gathered them up carefully and returned them to the pouch. “The bones do not lie,” she said as Crom-Ya squatted beside him. “You have a great destiny. You will rule over many. You will be remembered after your death for many generations, even when the ice retreats to the pole and the sea floods the lands where your Tribe dwells. Your legacy will fall into the hands of one who will be even greater than you…”

“Very well, Old Woman,” said Crom-Ya. “I will follow this course.”

British Isles, 15,000 BCE

The village was small and meagre, but well-guarded. As Crom-Ya approached with hawthorn branch raised in token of peace, spearmen raced out to surround him. They had swarthy skins and coarse black hair. Their limbs and faces were stained blue with the juice of woad.

After a week’s journey into the hills, he found himself deep in the land of the Painted Folk. The fierce warriors who menaced this unexpected guest with their flint tipped spears seemed small beside Crom-Ya.

“I come to speak with the wizard.” Crom-Ya spoke slowly and carefully in the lingua franca of the tribes. “I am unarmed.”

One of the painted warriors searched him, tearing from his throat the necklace of bear teeth he had earned on the cusp of manhood. Another struck him with the haft of his spear. Crom-Ya endured the indignity stoically, although he turned his colourless eyes on the aggressor, favouring him with a look of menace.

Another thrust him towards the stockade, and Crom-Ya allowed himself to be ushered into the settlement.

Hides hung drying from racks. The ground was muddy. Eyes watched him from the entrances to low huts thatched with reeds. A broad path led up to a large shelter in the middle of the village, in whose doorway sat a slender man of the Painted Folk, his swarthy face like a carving of bone. Two eyes twinkled with merriment, but his features were immobile. He wore a complicated headdress of feathers in token that he was a wizard, and clutched in one hand a feather bedecked staff.

Crom-Ya’s captors flung him to the ground before the painted chief. He rose to his feet at once, casting contemptuous looks about him as he dusted down his skins. 

“He says he would speak with you, O chief,” said the tallest, most blustering, most swaggering of guards. “He has no spear. Is he then a man or woman?”

A chorus of laughter greeted this witticism, but Crom-Ya endured it. “I would speak with you, Black Dog of the Painted Folk,” he told the wizard. “I would speak concerning those who dwelt in this land before.”

The laughter turned at once into hisses of horror. Black Dog’s face grew darker than it already was. “You would come here from your bogs and your marshes, to beg Black Dog for aid? Word of my powers has reached even your country?”

“I have heard that you are a great wizard,” Crom-Ya said, “that the beasts of the forest and the birds of the air speak with you, that also you have had dealings with the worms of the earth—and lived. Lived where others have died—or been taken. I, too, would have such dealings.”

Black Dog gave a dismissive gesture to his warriors, then patted the earth at his side and beckoned to Crom-Ya. “All but one of you, go back to your duties,” he told the men. “You, stranger, how do they name you?”

Crom-Ya introduced himself and Black Dog urged him to sit beside him.

“What will you grant me in exchange for my aid?” the wizard asked. “You have naught, it seems.”

Crom-Ya brooded. “If the Old Woman is right that I will rule over many, then the only way it will come about is if you help me,” he said, and explained what he had learnt of his destiny. “In return I vow peace and exchange of hunting and fishing rights between our two peoples.”

Black Dog gave a bark of laughter. “You are most lavish with rights that are not yours to give,” he remarked.

“I am chief of my Tribe by right,” Crom-Ya said hotly. “I ruled with might until my malaise brought me down. I will rule again—with your help.”

“You would have me gamble,” Black Dog murmured. “You would have me enter the depths, to speak on your behalf with… with them? The Dark People? The Little People?”

He spoke the words boldly, but Crom-Ya detected a shadow behind his eyes, a shadow of fear. “It is said that you are the one man who has done so and lived,” he said. “I would go down there and I would ask from them…”

“Aye?” Black Dog muttered. “What would you ask from them?”

“I would ask of them… the sword!” Crom-Ya said.

Black Dog laughed long and low. 

“You are intrepid,” he said, “to come weaponless and alone to my country, speaking such words. But boldness alone will not avail you. You did well to come to me, for only I know how you might prevail.”

“Then you will do it?” Crom-Ya asked. “You will aid me?”

“In return for hunting and fishing rights that are not yours to give…” mused Black Dog, sardonically stroking his long, beaklike nose. “Very well…”

“Who made the sword?” Crom-Ya asked one day.

Black Dog pulled at his long nose. “A craftsman,” he said shortly. 

When Crom-Ya showed no sign his curiosity was sated, he went on. “Flint Heart was his name, and he worked much in stone. Men came from far and wide to barter for his axe heads and spearheads, paying many hides for them. Yet Flint Heart was overweening, and discontented with the stone with which he worked. When a star fell from the heavens at winter tide, he swore that he would make of it a weapon stronger than any man had wielded aforetime.

“From the star with many labours Flint Heart worked a new kind of stone, harder and yet more malleable. At last with some aid from me he wrought it into a mighty blade with which to conquer his foes. But it was not to be. Those who dwell below came for it, and for him. Even I, who have long had an understanding with the Old People, could not save him. His fate was fixed, and so he sank into a place of darkness. There his sword is worshipped as a god, this fallen star.”

For nine days Black Dog kept Crom-Ya in his hut as an honoured guest, feting him and feeding him the best cuts of the deer his men hunted, the best berries his women gathered. Crom-Ya slept in the finest furs. The hospitality of the Painted Folk was renowned—as was their treachery.

But Crom-Ya met with no betrayal that fateful morn when the first lights streaked the sky and Black Dog shook him from sleep. The wizard told him to come with him. They went together into the morning mist, Black Dog exchanging greetings with a vigilant sentry before they entered the pines that swathed the further slopes.

The trees were dark, the gloom beneath them was icy, and from everywhere came the gurgle of running water. Their footsteps were almost silent in the smothering blanket of pine needles. The further they went, the quieter it became, until an awesome silence hung over all. 

At last Black Dog halted at a towering cliff of limestone that reared out of the dark forest. Croaking, a hoodie crow flew out from the cliffs high above and circled lazily above them.

Crom-Ya looked at Black Dog and saw that the imperturbable eagle-nosed wizard was pale with what must have been fear. “Where do we go?” he asked.

Jerkily, Black Dog turned to him. His eyes were glassy. “Are the folk of your Tribe blind?” He gestured at the rock face. He was indicating a narrow crack that Crom-Ya had previously disregarded. 

“That will lead us to the underground kingdom of… the Little People?”

Black Dog hissed. “Utter not even such circumlocutions in this land,” he said. “They are… listening. They… hear all.”

Stepping up to the crack he slithered his way inside. Crom-Ya followed, squeezing his massive bulk through the gap in the rock.

The downwards climb seemed endless. More times than he could count, Crom-Ya scraped his hide on the rough limestone. All he could hear was the hoarse rasp of their breathing and an endless, elusive, distant dripping of water. Darkness enclosed him, the rock surrounded him. It was as if he was returning to the womb, or was this to be his tomb?

He grew weary from the ceaseless descent, wearier than ever he had felt hunting amongst the woods and marshes of his homeland. Despair gripped him. They would never reach their destination, wherever it might be. He wanted to call out to Black Dog, who scrambled forever beneath him, tell him they must end this ordeal, return to the surface and all its chanciness. There was nothing for them down in this underworld.

But at that instant the clatter of Black Dog’s descent ceased. A wind blew up from below. Trepidation gripped Crom-Ya’s heart. He halted, crouching, listening. He heard a sound like the distant sigh of the wind. But there could be no wind down here. Then he heard words, echoing words, impossible to understand, speaking somewhere down there, a whisper magnified yet distorted by the rock.

Blindly he followed the shaft. With an abruptness that was shocking, he staggered out into a great open space. He could feel air, fresh air on his face and yet all was dark. Or was it?

In the darkness he could see a thousand malignant lights that watched him like eyes.

“Come closer, Crom-Ya,” echoed Black Dog’s voice. 

And there was another source of light. A dim beam fell from an opening high up in the cavern roof, far higher than even a man of Crom-Ya’s strength could climb. In its hazy sheen Crom-Ya thought he saw the wizard standing by a recumbent stone at the foot of the cavern wall. And propped up on the altar, against the stone wall, was a glimmering length of some substance, like stone but glittering. 

“Come and claim the sword,” said Black Dog invitingly.

Crom-Ya took two steps forward, and the glimmering eyes moved to surround him.

Black Dog laughed. “Here he is, as I said,” he shouted, raising echo after echo in that sightless cavern. “Yours to do with as you wish—to sacrifice to your dark gods or to take as breeding stock. Now let me depart in peace!”

4. The Little People

No man of the Tribe would accept his fate without fighting. Crom-Ya struck out at half seen forms, felt the pinpricks of flint tipped spears that jabbed him until blood trickled down his flanks. Strangely pliant, squamous flesh squirmed beneath his grasping fingers. Taloned hands seized him in return. The small, dark folk swarmed over him, forcing him to the ground. Struggling furiously, he was dragged across the rock floor, a process that half skinned him. He found himself on his knees before the altar stone.

“Traitor!” he spat as Black Dog gazed down at him.

The wizard laughed. “I, a traitor? I brought you here, I have demonstrated my power over these dark forces. They do my bidding, in return for my offerings.” He sniggered. “And it is you who I offer.”

Crom-Ya could barely see his captors. They veered away from the shaft of light, but he caught glimpses of their glowing eyes, their mottled skin, felt their squamous hides against his own. They were small, twisted, bereft of all humanity, and yet he felt that they were, or had been somehow human.

“What in the Toad’s name are they?” 

Black Dog laughed. “Once they were the folk of this land,” he said, “ere my own people came from the islands in the West with axe and torch. The Little People resisted, and we fought. We were stronger, we slew many. The survivors retreated deeper and deeper into the caves where they dwelt, to dwell permanently in darkness, coming out only at night to steal our food or our young. They are a dying race in need of good breeding stock. I tried to persuade them to take you as such, you would sire strong sons for them. But they are twisted and vengeful, and besides,” he indicated the glittering star stone, the sword, “they have a new god. They would slake its thirst with your blood.”

He tittered, licked his lips. “I would see that slaking,” he added, “ere I quit these nighted caverns for good.”

“What of the Old Woman’s runes?” Crom-Ya rumbled.

Black Dog shrugged. “Oft-times such witches are wrong,” he said, “or their message is obstruse. I have no choice but to give them what they seek. How else do you think I gained them as my ally? I bring them sacrifices, and in return they do me certain favours. Our dark bargain is the source of all my power…”

Crom-Ya’s eyes widened. “You never meant to help me,” he muttered. “You never sought any alliance. It was all a jest to you…”

Small figures scuttled into the gleam of light, and one took up the sword. Crom-Ya saw that bones lay at the foot of the altar stone, a man’s skull, a ribcage. He would not be the first to be offered to the new god, the idol that had fallen from the heavens. A twisted form lifted up the sword in taloned hands, eyes glistening with anticipation. Others hustled Crom-Ya forwards. He went unresisting.

The sword flashed like the lightning from which it was forged. Black Dog tittered.

And Crom-Ya struck.

He had been concealing his true strength, feigning submission as the Little People urged him towards the altar. Now he showed his true might, flinging his captors aside. Standing by the altar stone, their leader, sword in hand, jerked with shock as the shambling lummox they were to sacrifice broke out into frenzied action. But it was too late.

Crom-Ya snatched the sword from the leader’s talons, swung it in a glittering arc. The creature’s head went spinning away into the shadows.

“What are you doing, you fool?” Black Dog cursed.

He broke off as Crom-Ya spun, bringing the sword down to slice through his breastbone, splitting him from neck to crotch.

Crom-Ya crouched, panting, his pale skin dark with the blood of the wizard. The cavern glittered with the malignant eyes of the Little People. He had slain their leader, he had slain the wizard with whom they had had their foul dealings. They were armed only with feeble spears of stone, and Crom-Ya held in his profane hands that magic weapon that had fallen from the stars, the only blade of its kind—the sword.

Crom-Ya’s wild war cry awoke echo after echo as he charged at them, whirling the sword round in great swashing blows. He felt it connect with flesh, felt it break bone. Felt flint spearheads and talons scratch at him. But to no avail.

Reaching the archway from which he had gained access to the cavern, he began the weary, dizzying ascent back up the chimney in the rock. Forever beneath he heard the sounds of pursuit. Reaching the head of the shaft, he halted, panting wildly. He heard them creeping up after him. Looking back down the shaft, he thought it was filled with dancing fireflies. It was their eyes, drawing ever closer.

Wildly, he swung the blade at the rocky wall beside him. Again and again he lashed it, the clashing clang of the blade on stone echoing through the shaft as sparks rained down. He felt the vibrations running up the sword and up his arm as rock began to fall away, plummeting down into the shaft.

In a cataclysm of falling rock and clouds of dust, the wall collapsed. He was flung back by a flying rock and went staggering down the tunnel. Looking back he saw that the shaft was filled with fallen rock.

At last he stumbled out blinking into the light of late afternoon. He was bloody and battered and clawed. But his enigmatic pursuers had vanished like shadows at noonday. 

Clutching the sword in his mighty paw, he shambled off down the hillside.

Dawn broke over Crom-Ya’s village, a huddle of shelters in a clearing in the lowland forest. Already the thralls were awake, tending to the cooking fires while the hunters yawned and stretched in their bedding bundles. The women went to work on the skins where they hung stretched on the frames. 

Last to rise was the auburn maned, bearded Morgrim. He stood majestically within his shelter while his thralls clad him in his fox furs before striding out into the cold morning air, looking about at the working folk with a grin of satisfaction. His grin faltered when he saw the dark figure that stood silently on the edge of the village.

He laughed wildly. “Then the fool, the weak witted madman, has returned!” he shouted. Heads turned, folk halted in their tasks as they gazed at the newcomer.

Crom-Ya stood in the gap between two shelters, bedraggled and with limbs wrapped in blood crusted bandages. In his hand he held a strange weapon, whose like Morgrim the Fox had never seen before. 

Morgrim signalled to some of his wolfskin-wearing hunters, who snatched up their spears and came forwards. “I would have let you live,” the Fox said, addressing the still silent figure of menace, “if you had kept away. It is a sin to shed chiefly blood, they say.”

“No sin to spill yours,” Crom-Ya said harshly. And he came running, the new weapon glittering terribly in his hand. He swung it once, twice, and hunters fell back, clutching at blood spurting breasts or throats as the weapon darted like lightning. Women screamed, grabbed up their brats, rushed into the shelter of huts. 

Crom-Ya stalked forwards. Morgrim’s followers fell back in awe, leaving the path to their leader wide open.

“Defend me!” Morgrim the Fox shouted frenziedly. “Faithless rabble, am I not your chief?”

Crom-Ya laughed mirthlessly. “It is I who am their chief, by blood right,” he said. “I ruled here, like my fathers before me, by right of blood. And it is that right that I shall assert this day. Take up thine axe.”

Shaking, the friendless would-be chieftain went to meet his foe. All the Tribe watched as the two antagonists circled in that rude village square. Crom-Ya feinted suddenly, Morgrim brought up his axe in fear to defend himself, but then Crom-Ya shattered the stone blade with his own weapon, following it up by splitting the Fox’s skull to the teeth. Morgrim’s cunning brains flooded out in a welter of gore.

Fastidiously Crom-Ya wiped his blade with Morgrim’s fox fur. He turned, lifted the sword on high.

“I am chieftain of the Tribe,” he proclaimed. “Bend the knee to me in fealty, or suffer my wrath.”

And there, in the light of that savage prehistoric dawn, all the Tribesfolk knelt before their chief. Before the power of his sword.